Tell your California friends you’re going on vacation, and they’ll smile. Mention that it’s a family vacation, and that smile may falter for a moment. Tell them you’ve booked a trip to New York City, and they’ll say “ah” neutrally and perhaps nod. Tell them you’re going there and back by train, and they’ll gape at you like a goldfish. By train? In America? Can you, like, do that?
You can, and we did.
Train travel is obviously a case of nostalgia for most — A.A.R.P. members are the only people who don’t take air travel for granted. But me, I simply like trains. Neither body nor mind can tolerate for long the cramped confinement of a jet, the nasty recycled air, the lack of privacy, or the concretized dreck they call ‘the meal.’ Is there any queasiness to rival a turbulent descent from thirty thousand feet? And what about the look on the face of the guy on your left when he’s trying not to notice you being sick into that little bag?
Settled snugly in your own compartment, a train’s as friendly and romantic as travel gets. There’s something appealingly womblike about the peace, the gentle side-to-side motion and the soft rhythmic clickety-clack. It can also act as a bracing aphrodisiac on even a perfectly reasonable fellow such as myself. Thoughtfully, Amtrak has provided an effective antidote to this which they call the “Family Compartment,” but if you and a friend are lucky enough to have a Deluxe State-room to yourselves it’s at least theoretically possible to travel thousands of comfy American miles without ever wearing a stitch of clothing. This is great news for newlyweds, and old-line Swedenborgian nudists.
I prefer watching the countryside going by, not beneath, and I like it even better with a big window. How much nicer, when it‘s your own private big window. Ah, to get up and walk around, step outside sometimes, take a nap lying down, catch a movie, eat a meal cooked for me, enjoy a hot shower and stretch out for the night in my own room – as you travel! What’s not to enjoy?
Factor in today’s Security Fear, i.e., the likelihood that instead of boarding with the others a man with long hair and a beard will be asked to “please step into Examining Room 4b with Special Agent McClusky,” and there’s just no percentage in it.
Novitiate Am-trekkers need only keep two things in mind: try never to travel Coach, and don’t ever expect to get anywhere “on time.” (You might, of course, but don’t expect it.) Now, Coach is OK if you don’t mind the drawbacks of air travel mentioned above, but when I’m officially On Vacation I do not court stoicism if I can avoid it. First Class airfare is absurdly expensive, but First Class trainfare isn’t. Consider too, that what we spent on roundtrip tickets to New York also netted us 6 nights of accommodation for 4 people, plus about 72 full meals.
The “California Zephyr” departs Emeryville daily. And hey, there’s another thing -– they don’t give romantic names to airplanes, do they? If they did, it would sound stupid. I mean, tell your friends you flew in on “Sally the 747” and they’ll cut you off after one drink. Tell them you arrived on the “Empire Builder” or the “City Of New Orleans,” and they’ll instantly brighten up and ask what your journey was like.
Pulling out of Emeryville on Wednesday morning, we were bang on time…until we slowed down and stopped near Pinole. Then we stopped again beside the new Carquinez bridge. It was here that our attendant explained to me Amtrak’s great Achilles heel: they apparently own the train, but not the rails. As near as I can understand it, they lease their track time from another company what’s long ago determined that freight makes the real money, so they give short shrift to human payloads. With maddening frequency we stopped, a freight train went by, and we started again. But soon we cruised past the three flotillas of the Navy’s “mothball fleet” which I’ve always been curious to see, so I didn’t much care about the already slipping timetable.
And, I brought Middlemarch with me, a very good and very thick book.
Once in the timbered slopes of the Sierras, we relocated to the Lounge Car with its immense windows and drank in the beautiful vistas. A docent from the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento had boarded and was narrating points of historical interest along our route which, my son noted, featured many spectacular rail disasters. The discourse was soon punctuated by another rail phenomenon, the Train Geek.
Every long distance rail trip seems to feature one Train Geek, ours being spherical with pop-eyes, a permanent baseball cap, and an immense digital camera likewise surgically attached to his right hand. If any item of note passed by — a train station, a switching tower, an abandoned caboose, an old flatcar, a dog, a tree, a cloud — it was duly photographed. This, even while in mid-explanation of track gauges and the current market value of old rusty iron spikes.
Lunch time. The Dining Car is surely the highlight of any train trip and for good reason. The food is better than you’d expect, it’s all free to Sleeper Car passengers, and there is something especially privileged about watching the scenery roll by while you’re tucked into a booth, eating. Many restaurants make a big deal about their view, but can they touch this? Who ever waves at a restaurant? Everybody out there waves, when you’re in a passing train.
Also there’s the free dinner theater, starring the Dining Car staff. Like small repertories everywhere, the man in charge is by necessity a Little Corporal, but no two casts are alike. On this trip ours seemed to be culled from the ranks of giants, fresh from undertaker’s college. Meal numero uno, and not a smile was to be seen on any of ’em! They were, however, so large that they could hardly pass each other in the aisle. Laden with food, this made for some captivating impromptu pas de deux. When our server –-Lurch, I’ll call him — finally got to us I made the mistake of asking what the lunch special was, at which he hung his head and walked away. Fifteen (I exaggerate not) minutes later he returned, a journey of some nine balletic steps, to say, “Meat Loaf.” These were the only words spoken to us for the entire meal.
Fortunately, the meat loaf was quite tasty (I’d felt weirdly obliged to give it a try) and the Mac ‘n’ Cheese also passed muster with the youngest and severest of the family’s critics.
Teeth brushed and shoelaces loosened, we reclined in our Family Compartment, read stories and listened to the rolling creaks and groans of the train. Museum docent and scenery both departed at Reno, and the Zephyr forged eastward through bleak Nevada and darkening Utah. In but a jiffy, it was dinnertime.
Fittingly it took the onset of evening to liven up Lurch, at whose table we again sat. Maybe he was also mixing his meds, as now he not only spoke but employed a free mix of English and Italian. “Welcome to the dining car!” he said with energy, “Dinner is ready! And por la signora?” He fixed her with his basilisk eye. “Herb chicken, rice –very good idea. Y por el signor? El Steak-o, medium — baked spud. And-a Mac’n’Cheezino for the bambinos?”
Come back to your compartment after chow (a perfectly cooked steak, too, plus a slice of cheesecake for dessert and coffee served in those neat little round-bottomed glass carafes; did you know they’re called “hottles”?), come back to your compartment I say, and note your kids’ faces when they discover that it’s been transformed by your attendant into a cozy bedroom. It’s often a struggle to put our kids to bed but not on the train. In about two seconds they wriggled into their berths, the next chapter of Swallowdale was read aloud, and about two seconds later, they were sound asleep.
Thursday morning: freshly showered, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, one is greeted by the canyons of Sadler Summit wrapped around one’s most tasty flapjacks and bacon. Doubtless fleeing the brilliant sunlight, Lurch was not on duty but a compatriot of even greater displacement silently poured me a refill or two. “Isn’t the coffee good?” I asked my wife. “You’re obsessing on the food,” she said groggily. Not really a Morning Person, my loving spouse. When she found it could be done, she arranged with our attendant to henceforth have breakfast served to her in bed, back in the compartment.
Helper, Utah is so called as this was where the Union Pacific trains would typically stop and hitch extra locomotives to the line to get them safely over the Rockies. It’s interesting to look at the Cretaceous landscape around you and realize that the entire human landscape has been created by the very thing you’re riding on, and in only a century or so. These are railroad towns, and their history –the region’s history — is the railroad’s history.
There are plenty of ‘photo ops’ on this Colorado River route, through Rouge Canyon, Fraser Canyon and so on, especially when the train thoughtfully slows to a halt so frequently for you to get just the perfect composition. And then it thoughtfully halts again, just a little further along. At Grand Junction, Colorado, we were thoughtfully given a whole hour to wander around and photograph the (once beautiful, now derelict) old train station decomposing behind its chain link shroud. This opportunity was especially appreciated by our camera-toting Train Geek, though after a while even he began to glance at his watch.
We were finally cleared to enter Colorado’s six-and-a-quarter-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, on the condition that while inside it no one was allowed to go from car to car, to leave their compartment, or to buy food at the lunch counter. Apparently the air deep in the tunnel might get a little too diesel-fumish to support human life, but we rolled out safely in spite of the thing being way too long to make it on just one breath.
We timed it badly for the Movie Car. The feature we wanted to see (“Holes”) screened while we were next door at dinner, and the next evening we ate earlier, but were shown “Agent Cody Banks” instead. Well, that’s show biz.
You may be surprised to learn the majestic Rocky Mountains were a trifle dull in total darkness, but then the train rounded a bend and a boggling prospect was suddenly spread out far below. Surely the Denver town elders planned that their scattered streetlights should be in three different hues? Looking down from the Rockies, the Denver metro area is a fabulous surreal nightscape, a wonderful green, orange and golden vision.
We tried an interesting experiment: with the curtains closed, a person standing up in the gently swaying Family Compartment is hard pressed to tell exactly which way the train is really moving. Without scenery visibly going by, you’re without a crucial reference. Lying in their bed, too, a person can dreamily imagine they’re moving in the opposite direction, or even sideways, coasting miles over a vast field of glimmering lights.
Uh…when the train is actually moving, that is.
Friday breakfast found us accelerating through the great prairies of Nebraska and Iowa. Plucky fellow passengers observed hopefully that “they’re certainly making up a lot of time, aren’t they?” until the whole shebang ground to a halt once more to await passage of the inevitable oncoming freight.
The view (moving or stationary) was endless corn and soybeans, dotted with the occasional barn or silo. One never realized America featured so much space. By now the Lounge Car had become the Train Geek’s permanent parlor, enlivened by a large walkie-talkie he kept poised before him, always ‘on,’ tuned to the band used by the engineer and crew. It squawked and brayed, not a single word intelligible…except perhaps, to him. At Osceola, Iowa he began making cell calls, proudly informing friends that by this point he’d taken over thirteen hundred pictures.
After crossing the sprawling Mississippi that afternoon, it was occurring to many passengers (us included) that the chances of catching our Chicago connecting train for New York, the “Lake Shore Limited,” were diminishing. The timetable gave us more than three hours of layover — a good cushion — but by Princeton, Illinois we were almost four hours late. The conductor was reassuring but offered no guarantees, though our speed did seem to increase a little.
When we finally blew into downtown Chicago’s Union Station, at least two dozen packed-and-ready travelers burst out of the “Zephyr” like a wave of rolling suitcases and ready tickets …to find that the “Lake Shore Limited” had departed Platform 12 on schedule, twenty minutes before.
A foaming angry mob then swept us along to the Customer Service desk to confront the formidable Senior Manager, whose iron professionalism is clearly due to rehearsing this scenario all too often. Most of our fellow Zephyrates were dismayed at missing their train yet willing to be fed and put up for the night for free, but we chose to catch another train departing at ten p.m., and so we boarded the “Three Rivers Pennsylvanian,” bound for Akron, Pittsburgh, Trenton, and New York City.
But we were downgraded to Coach! No Sleepers available. The kids didn’t mind since we were still all together, and they could curl up neatly into their reclined seats. They had their coats for blankets, so what was the big problem?
“We paid for beds,” my wife said tartly. “Well, the ticket man said we’ll be credited for the overpayment,” I pointed out, “and we’ll still get to New York the same day.” “Did he give you a pillow?” “Uh, no.” Still, I tried to be upbeat. “We could just pretend we’re back in college, you know, like the old Eurailpass days? Remember bumming around Europe?” “I am not 19 years old.” “Well, you’re not as tall as those guys,” and I indicated the husky young lads in front of us, six-and-a-half-footers each, speaking what sounded like Russian.
It turned out they were Lithuanian, in college, and bumming around America for the summer. Their names were Ari and something unpronounceable, like seven vowels and an ‘L’. They were shy, friendly, and very broke, on their way to New York to catch a flight back to Vilnius. This was their third day on the rails too, except they’d come from L.A. in Coach, on a special rail-pass. These guys lived so frugally I gathered their entire summer had set them back about two hundred bucks apiece, including tips. They had neither blankets nor pillows, skipped meals with a shrug to save money, and just folded their big frames into the seats and shut their eyes when the time came. Oh, to be 19 and on the road...
The “Three Rivers Pennsylvanian” indeed follows three rivers through Pennsylvania; each of them is beautiful. Rivers always fascinate me because I come from Los Angeles where there are no rivers, only cement drainage culverts, seasonally activated. Real river foliage is so lush and green, everywhere, and even the immense abandoned steel mills by the riverside were not un-picturesque, forlorn and slowly rusting as they are, certainly more attractive than when operational. Train routes through cities are usually ugly, but following river valleys there is little else than serene beauty.
Near Lancaster I noticed passengers collecting their luggage for the next stop. They wore plain overalls, plain clunky shoes, plain dresses, plain mob-caps, plain straw hats, and herded half a dozen plain kids dressed in identical plain miniature. And those tremendously cool beards! They were actual Amish farmers! At the station they were met by ten others mystically teleported from the same century — but they were climbing out of mini-vans and station wagons. I thought Amish drove only buggies? Our attendant pointed out that they were in fact Hutterites or Mennonites, “What you might call postmodernist Amish.” They farmed traditionally, and had those tremendously cool beards, but they drove cars, danced, and even had ‘the electric’ in their houses.
“Hey now, we could do that, you know,” I told my wife, “we could live like that. We could farm traditionally, work the land. It’s real life. Salt of the Earth! We could be great Hutteroids.” “You’re an atheist, for pete’s sake,” she sighed, looking up over her book. “As soon as they got to know you, we’d all be burned at the stake in the village square.”
By nightfall we were in New Jersey, thoughtfully coming to one last stop in the middle of nowhere, which as luck would have it gave the train as good a view of the famed New York skyline as could be had. The mighty Empire State Building stood out dramatically, quite well lit and vertically significant. Inspired, the Lithuanians began to sing “New York, New York” — in Lithuanian.
Manhattan! Pennsylvania Station! Some 3,397 miles and 11 states behind us, and yet we debarked fresh as daisies. We had a full NYC itinerary carefully planned, and yet, we were already looking forward to the train ride back home.